The Privileged Poor

A (to me) fascinating article in the New York Times today, talking about “the privileged poor,” which in this case means poor students who were fortunate enough to attend elite high schools, and the advantages they have over other poor students when both groups went on to college. The article was fascinating to me because I was very much “privileged poor” — I attended a private boarding school in high school and was so well prepared for college because of it that it literally took me a year and a half at college before I was dealing with something I couldn’t just dip into my high school experience to deal with, and I went to the University of Chicago, not exactly a grunt school.

This is a topic I’ve addressed before, indeed very recently: The idea that my life had been manifestly changed because my high school let me in despite being poor; my upward trajectory in life started my freshman year in high school. It was, to be sure, an incredibly tough year, as I adjusted to the school and its expectations (the fact I was a willful little brat didn’t help any). I try to imagine that year of wrenching adjustment happening when I was eighteen rather than fourteen. I don’t know that it would have gone as well for me.

I don’t think you need to go to an elite high school to be reasonably prepared for college; lots of people don’t go to one and get along just fine. But the article does reinforce my belief that a good education leading up to college really is important. You can’t just chuck someone into the deep water of college– any college, not merely an “elite” one as noted in this article — and expect them to swim. If there’s one thing I would absolutely change about the US, it would be an immense overhaul of how we do schooling and how we prep our kids for the future. How it happens matters. It matters a lot.

My Almost Certainly Ill-Advised Proposed Award Voting Process

In light of recent events and posts, I’ve been asked, if it fell to me to create a literary award, how I might work the voting process.

My response is, first, I think I would rather pull out my own teeth with pliers than to take on the work and aggravation of helming an award, and this is from someone who was (only very nominally, and insulated by a couple of layers of extraordinarily competent people) previously in charge of the Nebulas. I’m super-impressed with anyone who can handle an award on the front lines. It’s not a gig for me.

Second, if you put a gun to my head and made me do one, or, alternately, put the gun to my head but then promised me that someone else would have to actually run the things so that all I had to do was think up the process, then here’s what I would do, for the process of a popularly-voted award.

1. Categories: Doesn’t matter, think up any category or categories you want, as the process would be the same no matter how many categories there are. I would suggest that every category would have to have a minimum number of initial voters to be considered; say, 500.

2. Who votes: Anyone can vote. Each voter gets their own ID, which can be used only by them. Stupidly obvious attempts to game the system can be disallowed by the poor bastards who actually have to run the system at any step in the process, but for reasons that will become obvious in a second, stupidly obvious attempts to game the system here doesn’t offer much long-term benefit.

3. How the vote works: There are three voting rounds: Nomination, long list, and finalist.

Nomination: Everyone votes for one and only one work (or person, if it’s that sort of category) in the category. The top ten or twelve vote-getters are sent to the long list stage (ties, etc are fine but the goal would be to get number of long list nominees as close to the ideal long list number as possible).

Long List: Everyone votes for up to three works on the long list, none of which can be the single work they originally nominated. That’s right! You have to choose something else in this stage, and hope enough other people like the work you originally nominated to include it among their own selections!

But what if people choose not to make selections in the stage in the hope that their lack of selection of other work will bump up the chances of their preferred work? Well, I would consider making a rule that says failure to participate in this round counts as a point against your original choice’s score in this round — which is to say if you don’t vote in this round, a point is deducted for your original choice’s score in this round (presuming it made the long list at all). You’re better off voting if you want your original selection to make it to the final round.

In this round, the top five or six vote-getters graduate to the final round. Hope your original choice made it!

Finalist: This vote is done “Australian Rules” style, where each voter ranks the works from first to last choice. “No Award” is an option in this round, so if you hated everything in the long list round, this is where you may register your disapproval. The winner is the one which collects the majority of votes, in either the first or subsequent balloting rounds.

Why would I do the voting this way? Because it emphasizes both individual choice and community.

  • Picking a single work in the first round makes you really think about what you loved that year and forces hard choices early; knowing that you will have to rely on other people to carry your choice into the final round also makes you think about what you believe others will find worthy.
  • Picking an initial single work also avoids obvious slating, while a long list allows for the possibility of a wider diversity of choices for the finalist round.
  • Forcing people to make a selection other than their original choice in the long list round makes them consider what else out there might be worthy of consideration, and also again punishes attempts at obvious slating.
  • Three choices for a finalist slate of five or six also again cuts down on obvious slating and allows for diversity in the finalist round of voting.
  • “Australian Rules” in the final round allows for a consensus vote for the best work in any particular category.

If you want to further reduce any chance of slating you could employ EPH to the long list round, but you get the idea.

Would this work? Got me. And as I noted I’m not going to go out of my way to implement them, because: Ugh, effort. But if anyone wants to try it and see how it works for them, knock yourself out. Could be fun. As long as someone else but me does the work.

Now: Pick it apart in the comments!

17 Years

On this day seventeen years ago I sat down and wrote the first-ever blog post on Whatever (or “the Whatever”; the disposition about the indefinite article was not resolved for a number of years). I’m still doing it, on a more or less daily basis. It’s the longest amount of time that I’ve ever kept time with something, excepting my marriage, and basic functions like respiration; even my daughter is younger than this blog by about three months. I’ve said this before and it continues to be true: In many ways, this blog is my life’s work.

More accurately, it chronicles a very specific time in my life. I started the blog in 1998, after I had been laid off at America Online and I had begun freelancing, first (ironically) for AOL and then for a number of other companies, and also for various newspapers and magazines. Two years in I published my first book; four years in I posted Old Man’s War, which then got bought and was published when the blog was six and a half. Before the blog, I was employed by a company, first the McClatchy newspapers and then America Online. The blog covers what happened when I became “my own man,” entirely responsible for whether I was working or not.

Oddly, until today I never really thought about it in that way. Obviously, I was aware when I started the blog, and the context in which the blog existed. I just hadn’t tied it to being a chronicle of this particular era of my life in any explicit way. But it is, and in that light is even more interesting to me because of it.

I’m not the same person I was when I started it. I’m older, of course (by seventeen years), but my position in the world is also rather a bit different. I was struggling when I started the blog, albeit, and significantly, that struggle was more for notability than financial stability, which fortunately came early. I don’t expect I could be said to be struggling in any sense today. I wrote things then that I probably wouldn’t write now; many of the things I would say I might phrase differently. I think I’ve generally become more tolerant, although specifically there are people who I am less tolerant of, mostly people superficially like me, whose monstrous sense of entitlement I find both appalling and wearying. I’m more comfortable with the idea that my opinions are not necessarily an accurate model of How The World Really Is For Everyone. I’m definitely balder.

I feel a direct connection with the John Scalzi of seventeen years ago, who started this blog; he was me. But I am me now, and I like me today. I think he’s probably a better person in some critical ways. There’s always room for improvement, mind you. I hope in another seventeen years(!) future John Scalzi sees the same sort of forward motion.

Last year at this time, I noted that how I use Whatever was changing, in part because of other social media (notably, for me, Twitter) and in part because of the circumstances of my life changing — me getting busier, basically. This continues to be the case, and I’m also experiencing something like fatigue on a number of topics, most clearly politics. I find it difficult to write about politics these days because what I mostly feel about them is exasperation, and exasperation is kind of a Twitter thing, which is to say, nicely expressed in 140 characters, somewhat dreary after that. I do imagine I will write more about it the closer we get to the presidential election; I don’t imagine it will become less exasperating, but it might have more daily relevance for my life, and that will help, in terms of kvetching about it here.

And once again, no matter what form Whatever takes in the next year, I do intend to keep writing it. I’ve been doing this for seventeen years, after all, and for as long as I’ve been in this part of my career. It’s an integral part of my life. I can’t imagine not doing it.